As a deep-lying central midfielder, Santi Cazorla has found a new lease of life at Arsenal. It wasn’t always thus: When Cazorla first arrived at Arsenal, he was heralded as a belated replacement for Cesc Fabregas.
Although the Catalan schemer now plays as a deep-lying midfielder for Chelsea, his final days at Arsenal saw him regularly deployed as a No. 10 behind Robin van Persie. When he departed for Barcelona, Arsenal were linked with recruiting Cazorla from Villarreal as a like-for-like substitute by the Daily Mail. However, they were beaten to the punch by Malaga, who at the time were benefiting from an injection of funds from owner Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani.
Typically, Arsene Wenger did not panic buy an alternative. Instead, he decided to bide his time, and when Malaga fell into financial difficulties 12 months later, the Gunners pounced to secure their man.
Cazorla stepped immediately in to that central attacking role, and made a huge contribution in his first season in English football. Playing behind the striker, his ambidextrous dribbling and impressive shooting ability made him a constant menace to opposition defences.
However, he did not remain in that role for the entire season. In the second half of the season, Wenger was forced to shore up his midfield by fielding a more physical player, such as the energetic Tomas Rosicky, in the No. 10 spot. It’s not that Cazorla ever shirked work, but he was still acclimatising to the demands of the Premier League and could occasionally find himself overpowered by the opposition.
Cazorla was subsequently shunted out to the left wing, where he played in the role Samir Nasri once described as a "non-axial playmaker." This involved cutting in from the flanks to create space for an overlapping full-back and feed off a pivotal centre-forward.
Although Cazorla’s new role was inevitably more peripheral, he still had a massive influence on Arsenal’s campaign. At the end of his first season in England, he had appeared in every single Premier League game, scoring 12 goals and recording 11 assists. It was no great surprise when he was then named the club’s official Player of the Season.
It was on that left flank that Cazorla seemed destined to stay. It suited him: With his low centre of gravity and quick feet, he was able to spin quickly away from his marker. His two-footedness made it impossible for the opposing full-back to decipher whether he would cut inside or dart for the line.
The arrival of Mesut Ozil at the outset of the 2013/14 season seemed to confirm that Cazorla’s days as the man in the middle were numbered. As the club’s record signing and a playmaker of extraordinary elegance, Ozil was always likely to be handed the plum spot between midfield and attack. Cazorla remained in his supporting role, doggedly protecting his full-back when required before shuffling forward to add his imagination and industry to the attack.
However, Cazorla’s influence was clearly beginning to fade. At the start of the 2014/15 season, Wenger made a concerted effort to integrate Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere alongside Ozil in a new 4-1-4-1 formation, and for a time it appeared the Spaniard would be the one to miss out as a consequence. He was on the cusp of turning 30, and fans could be forgiven for openly wondering if Wenger was considering evolving his plans for the team without Cazorla as an integral cog.
It’s funny how fast football can change. In the winter of 2014, a spate of injuries hit Arsenal in central midfield. With few options available, Wenger was forced to recall Francis Coquelin from a loan spell at Charlton to provide the Gunners with an anchoring presence in the middle of the park.
Cazorla was chosen as his unlikely partner. It seemed absurd that a player who had been considered too lightweight to play as a central attacking playmaker could be asked to sit deep at the base of the Arsenal midfield, but Wenger had clearly observed a change in the Spaniard.
His upper-body strength had improved, so that challenges which once knocked him to the ground simply bumped him off-course. Fortunately, his remarkable technical skill allows him to survive those sharp changes of direction, slaloming through the opposition at will.
That ability to keep the ball in tight spaces is invaluable in that area of the park. Cazorla can open up the game with a quick shimmy and sprint away from his markers. Albeit with a very different anatomy, it’s almost reminiscent of the way Patrick Vieira would dance through the midfield fire to set up Arsenal’s counter-attacks.
He also has a tremendous range of passing, and playing from deep allows him to control the tempo of the game. Cazorla has taken up the conducting baton from Mikel Arteta: He now sets the rhythm of every Arsenal performance. However, that’s not to suggest his passing is not progressive. When required, he’s also able to pick out a defence-splitting ball.
Crucially, he’s formed an excellent partnership with Coquelin, whose brute physicality neatly offsets Cazorla’s technical brilliance. With that pair in tandem, Arsenal have their most balanced midfield in years.
In the space of a season, Cazorla re-established himself in Arsenal’s midfield engine room, and made himself absolutely indispensable to Wenger. The little man has never been a bigger figure in the Gunners XI.